When Timothy Potts became the director of the Getty Museum in September, he knew he was stepping into an anomaly of a job, unusual within the ranks of America's most prestigious museums.
Other museum heads, bound by tight budgets, must essentially beg private collectors for donations of money and artwork. Potts, thanks to the $5.3-billion endowment of the Getty Trust, is under pressure to spend money instead of raising it.
So how is his wish list for acquisitions coming? "I don't have one," said Potts, 54, in his first interview on the job. Or believe in them: "You need to be opportunistic when pursuing works of the highest quality.
"One thing we don't have and probably never will have is a Leonardo, at least a painting. We don't have a Caravaggio. Of course we'd really like to acquire works by those artists.
"But if you have a rule or set of priorities and you decide you're going to wait until a great Caravaggio comes along, you are going to miss 20 other extraordinary opportunities which could end up never being repeatable and the Caravaggio still won't come along, and you're left holding nothing."
Getty Trust President James Cuno, who oversees the museum, chose Potts in part based on his track record as the erudite and ambitious director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Cuno had said his highest priority was finding a museum director with the appetite — and the nerve — for big acquisitions.
Now other arts leaders are curious to see what sort of team Potts and Cuno will make, knowing that the previous museum director quit in 2010 amid a power struggle with the previous trust head. And they're watching to see what sorts of acquisitions Potts will pursue.
"I wonder whether the Getty can continue to acquire major paintings now that they're so expensive — in the stratosphere that only Russian billionaires can afford," said Emily Sano, art advisor to Larry Ellison and former director of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. "I wonder whether they will diversify."
"Why don't they collect all kinds of art? Why don't they collect 20th and 21st century art as well?" asked Laguna Art Museum director Malcolm Warner, who worked under Potts at the Kimbell and called him a "natural" at "building great collections."
Potts spoke about his plans over coffee at the Getty Villa, home to the museum's antiquities, on a brilliant fall afternoon. He said he was getting to know his staff, about 200 people in all between the villa and the Getty Center in Brentwood.
Then there are the museum's three sister programs (a conservation center, a grant-making foundation and a research institute), notorious for their fierce sibling rivalry. He discounted these tensions as the result of "personality conflicts" more than an insurmountable structural problem. "I can tell you already, the other program heads are truly collegial," he said
He also talked about adjusting to L.A. — "much easier than adapting to Fort Worth," he said, flashing a smile.
But most of all he talked about his vision for collecting. Historically, the Getty has focused on fields like Greek and Roman antiquities, manuscripts, photography, and 18th and 19th century European paintings.
In the case of antiquities, Potts made an argument for going beyond Roman and Greek works to follow new scholarship that crosses geographic borders and tracks cultural exchange.
"Our collecting guidelines aren't definitive on that. We have in the past and certainly could in the future collect things from cultures beyond Greece and Rome or chronologically beyond the parameters of what we consider the classical period."
"If you want to understand a culture like the Greek one or Roman one, you have to remember that Rome famously conquered the whole Mediterranean rim and all the way through to the borders of Iran, and Alexander the Great conquered all the way through to central Asia."
Is there also room for modern art at the Getty, which stops collecting around 1900?
"I would not rule out a donation of major 20th century works," he said, noting that Cuno and the board would have to approve, as they do for any acquisition of more than $1 million.
But he suggested that starting up in this area at this point would not be practical: "We could use up our entire budget on half a painting each year," he said — the closest he came to disclosing his acquisition budget. (Cuno also declined to disclose it, citing standard museum practice.)